Saturday, January 16, 2010

What does building the barn do for the college's programs?

(for the Unity Magazine)

At first glance it would seem like building any kind of building is not a good occupation with which to take up the educational time of four year college students. After all, the baccalaureate degree is for white collar leaders in society, right? For folks in suits and carrying laptops and briefcases. Not for carpenters or contractors or any of the other construction tradespeople that society normally expects to do this kind of work.

Not for people with callouses on their hands.

But don't college students have to learn a work ethic too? Don't they also have to learn to accept and provide leadership? Learn to solve problems? Learn to endure a little, taste a little fatigue, gain a little character, test out a little confidence, accept a few hard knocks from the university of life, and come up smiling?

And can society afford to leave all the manual work to blue collar professionals? I mean this question in two senses of the word "afford." Can't individuals benefit financially from working on their own buildings, saving money and frustration, becoming more independent and self-reliant? Won't they be better able to afford to be homeowners if they can, a direct benefit? And if people in general are more self-reliant, won't society benefit? Won't we save on time, energy, and brainpower if people in general are capable, confident, and competent with buildings? Especially if, as I suspect, we will need to retrofit all our older building stock to be more efficient, and build only "green" new buildings, from here on out because of scarcer and scarcer fossil fuel. How can society afford to become as energy efficient as we need to, if most folks who are in charge of organizations and thus in charge of buildings don't know a sill from a stud from a screw?

So this is why we built a barn last semester, using a whole general education class of Unity students for labor. Not so much to answer these kinds of questions, as to ask them. In situ.

Oh. And then we had to ask the questions about farming and growing food too. Can society allow only professional large scale farmers and corporations to grow food? Can we safely remain as dependent on large scale agribusiness as we have done, or do we have to learn to be a little more self-reliant in that area too? Won't Maine be better served overall if we have a diverse farming economy, in which small scale farm enterprises can compete with the large, in which local food connections are valued, in which Unity College graduates go on to become, as many have always done, Waldo County farmers.

The barn is the ecological heart of the farm. A farm without a barn has no way to capture manure for fertilizer. There are ways around this, of course, green manures and the like. Most farmers today use nitrogen fertilizers, which are made using large amounts of natural gas. But we will run out of natural gas.

Finally, how, if we are to have a Captive Wildlife Care and Education Program at Unity College, are the students to get the kind of practice they need, and build the kind of confidence they need, in taking care of animals? Anyone who's never had to do at least something like tackle a full grown Romney ewe to clip her hooves or give her a shot of medicine, or who's never had to trim the hooves of a horse, or never shoveled out stalls, who's never learned the discipline of daily food, water, and observation every day, without fail, because it's your sacred duty to care for these critters that you made dependent on you...

...well, that person has no business becoming a zookeeper or animal trainer or other kind of animal care person.

So this is why we built a barn.

Because there are some things that are too important to teach in the classroom.

We got a little help along the way, from folks who knew how to do things, from Roger Duval and Tom Byron and the guys at Maintenance, from Carol Palmer who knew how to keep our books for us and pay our bills, from Gerald Fowler and his crew who knew how to make Waldo County hemlock trees into lumber, and from Tim Peabody who gave us 2,000 board feet of pine, and from Andrew and Caleb Stoll, Unity Amishmen who sold us a roof, made in Unity for only a fraction of the normal cost, and from last year's class who made up the frames for the building.

But the rest we did ourselves. And we have the callouses to prove it. And it did us good.